Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Did Not Fail

I always thought my first DNF (Did Not Finish) would be this huge awful traumatic experience. Pretty dramatic, right? I thought there would be a lot of tears (there were a little) and that I wouldn't be able to face all the people who were tracking my progress and waiting to see how I did.

It wasn't like that. At all.

I have been wavering on what to write or even if I was going to write at all. One of my biggest regrets here is that I didn't write throughout my training in 2014. I wish I did. I think the rollercoaster of emotions I went through would have not been so bad if I had proof that it was normal and that I had been there before. I don't really know where to start, so I guess I'll just jump right in.

First off, I'll just say that this year was weird for racing. I should do a race round up post just to summarize. My favorite tri was downgraded to a 5K after rip tides and torrential rain. That was the start of my season. I had some horrible swims, disappointing bike times and runs that were all over the place. I did a late spring half marathon that was slow, but a total blast. It was just a weird, weird year for me.


The good:

I trained harder and smarter for my half ironman. I bought a bike trainer at the end of last season and used it to keep up my fitness during our 10-feet-of-snow winter. It also made it much easier to get long rides in without completely rearranging my schedule. Usually I'd have a long ride on Saturday and a long swim and run on Sunday. If I had to work on that Saturday it would mean that a 3 hour ride would be from 7-10pm. Not really doable outside, especially in the city! If I moved it to Sunday, I'd be doing all three sports back to back. Also kind of crazy. Instead I could hop on the trainer after work and get it done. Of course it was a pretty boring Saturday night, but it worked great and I found a lot of benefit to running the day after a long ride.

I also figured out my bike nutrition. In contrast to our arctic-like winter, we had one of the hottest summers in a while. By September I was confident in my switch to Tailwind (mandarin orange flavor is great!).

They put my name on the bag, wrote a little note and threw in a sample and some stickers!

I was also able to get to know my teammates more and this was a great thing!

The bad:

I was really really sick the last two weeks of June, right after I did the half marathon. I had a fever for days and major chest congestion for weeks. I did nothing the first week and hardly anything the week after. On the days I did work, I went right to bed after. It took me a better part of a month to completely recover.  The good thing is that I didn't dwell on it and moved right on with training when I could, but I knew I missed a couple of big weeks and that certainly didn't help my cause. 

Despite swimming much more, starting earlier in the season and actually following the prescribed workouts I had two horrible swims. Both were in the ocean and 1/4 and 1/2 miles. I don't know what my issue was with the first one. I just kind of lost my head and let the rough water at the turn around get to me. The second was was just really rough. The current was pushing one way, the wind gusting another. It was choppy, there were some rollers and the people around me were kind of freaking out. I started to feel like I wasn't making forward progress and got really freaked out. The fact that a few of my teammates were at the swim exit really was the only reason it didn't get worse. At the finish line, one of them was waiting for me and I told her that knowing she was there waiting really helped me pull through. 

These bad swims, along with really slow bike times really started to get to me. I think I spent a lot of energy with the mental battle between trying to push my limits and perform better, but also understand that I was aiming high. It was as if I had forgotten where I was starting from. I was seeing all these people I looked up to achieving these great times and instead of using them as inspiration, I was comparing myself to them. I know this is wrong, but it took a while to figure out exactly why I was feeling so horrible about my times. 


The summer went along and I started to have some lower back pain. I attributed it to doing a bunch of races in a row and then going back to work after vacation, right into an overtime week. I figured if I was careful and took it easy, I would feel better. I stretched some, but if I knew how much it would bother me in the race, I would have been much more aggressive in treating it. I'm also currently putting together a strength training plan to not only work on my core, but my whole body. I'm planning on keeping it up into next years training.

As the race neared, I was starting to get really nervous but also felt fairly peaceful about it. It was strange to feel both, but I did. I think I knew where my problems lie, and they were potentially real issues, but I also knew I did what I could.  I just wanted race day to come so I could see how it would end. Never once did I think I'd voluntarily DNF. I didn't really think there was a big possibility of them pulling me either. I was mostly scared of failing to do better than the previous year. I also REALLY didn't want to be last again.

Despite the fact that I'm an introvert and need my own space and time to myself, I decided to stay at my teammates house in Maine for race weekend. I tend to kind of hibernate before races. I get SO nervous that I don't feel like I can socialize. I realized that there was probably nothing good about shutting myself away with only my own thoughts, plus I really like my teammates! Andrew and I headed up on Friday and had a nice relaxing pasta dinner with some of the people who were competing the next day at the Lobsterman Olympic distance triathlon. I was hoping to spectate that race, but my back was acting up again and I barely slept Friday night. I was tired and the bed was so comfortable but I just could not shut my brain off. Andrew and I ended up sleeping in and then hanging out, waiting to help with the cookout. Saturday night was a lot of fun. Every year, the teammates who are doing Lobsterman on Saturday and Pumpkinman on Sunday have a cookout on Saturday evening. This year it was at the house where we were staying, so it was nice to just be able to go right to bed after. I was really proud of myself for making sure I did the right thing for myself that day. I didn't eat a lot of junk food. I made sure I ate at the right times. I also ate what is the perfect dinner for me - chicken and rice, some potatoes and a little bit of veggies. No alcohol and no dairy. Not even the delicious looking birthday ice cream pie! I had such a nice night getting to know everyone better and by the time I went to bed around 9, I felt pretty content. I was ready to race and felt like what would be, would be.

Well THAT'S not good...

No one is surprised I was obsessively checking the weather. When I woke up at 4:30, it was raining pretty good and it was COLD. My phone said it was 55º out. We headed to the race site, I got body marked and went to find my rack spot. At first I was happy to be on the end by the fence. It's one less person's stuff to deal with being next to mine. Then I realized I had like 8 inches. I had much less space than normal. People had also put their bags along the fence and they were right up to where my tire touched down. Um, I'm sorry. Do you want me to stand on your bag while I change? My only other option would be to stand in front of the bike next to me and block that person. I gently moved some of the bags over to make room. Don't be those people, okay? Not only is it not allowed by USAT rules, but it's bad sportsmanship to take more than your fair share of the space and to block another persons transition area (it can also get you a penalty). I crammed my stuff into the plastic bags I brought with me and hoped for the best. It took much longer to arrange everything and all of a sudden we were being called out of transition.

Again, I was in the second to last wave. It's such a bummer. I know someone has to be in those last waves, but I'm so slow, I spend most of the race alone. After about 20 minutes it was our turn and we waded into the water. The water felt amazing. The air was barely 60º and the water was much warmer. A few seconds later we were off! I could tell from the start that I was much more comfortable in my wetsuit than previous swims. I tried to stay steady, stay out of the way of the faster swimmers coming up behind me (it was a double loop swim and some were passing us while on their last loop) and swim as straight as possible. I'm actually quite happy with how well I sighted. I felt relaxed but also able to push it. I rounded the turn buoy, according to my Garmin, in 25 minutes. Two minutes off last year! I still felt great, so I pushed it some more. As I went along the long back stretch, I was starting to feel a tightness in my back. I can see where it happened when I look at the data from my Garmin. I slowed wayyyy down. That loop took almost 30 minutes. Another bummer. I came out of the water next to one of my teammates and saw there was only one person behind us.

It took me FOR EV ER to get out of transition. I just could not decide what to wear and what to ditch. I couldn't easily see my stuff because it was all in bags. It was cold and drizzly but I decided not to fight with my arm warmers. I managed to beat one person out of transition and headed out onto the course. It sucks racing in the rain. It was just annoying. Water was dripping down my helmet, there was grit in my brakes, my shifters were slippery. I was trying to not have an attitude problem, but it was a struggle. I reminded myself to be grateful I was able to be here at all.

The beginning of the course is rough and my back was not loving the ride. I hoped as I became more used to the bike and the pavement smoothed out that my back would feel better. Or at least not feel worse. I began hitting some of the rolling hills and conveniently put it out of my mind that most of the first 18 miles are a gradual uphill. As I topped the bigger hill on the course I realized I had lost some of the power in my glutes and legs. It just felt like, with the pain and tension in my back that I couldn't really dig in and push. I also heard the van from the sponsoring bike shop behind me and was filled with dread.

The sweep vehicle. I am last. AGAIN.

I know that's silly but when I'm suffering like I was then, I want to be alone. I don't want anyone around me. Of course the van left me plenty of room and it was a comfort to know they were there to help, but I just wished I didn't have to be the one right there.

At this point I came through the nice long downhill section and was trying to get comfortable on the flatter part. Everything hurt. My lower back was now really tight. My neck was tight, my shoulders cramped. My wrists hurt and I realized I had locked my elbows. How was I going to get through another 30 miles? And then I'd have to run 13! I was starting to realize how bad I felt and couldn't see finishing. I never feel like that. I always feel like I can finish, even if I'm starting to have a negative monologue. Twice I saw side streets and thought about stopping to quit. I just couldn't. I started to feel emotional about it. I started to do a check in to see what was keeping me in this race:

Disappointing others? Not really. I knew that everyone knew how long and hard I worked just to get there. I knew most of them would be mad if they knew how bad I felt but kept going. I knew many of them thought it was awesome just to get there in the first place, just to be brave enough to toe the line.

Wasted training? Not that either. At the very least I knew I was fitter and stronger than ever. I knew the toughness I earned in getting through workouts I didn't feel I had the energy to even start was a gift in and of itself. I knew that no matter how hard I worked this year, that each consecutive year I could work harder, get better. The journey itself should not be forgotten. The race was just the prize at the end.

The prize. I knew the biggest disappointment would be that. My "prize" is finishing. I'm not competing to win, but I get to wear my finisher medal home that day and my finisher shirt around on vacation that week (okay and all the time!). I hadn't imagined I'd go without them. How silly. It's a medal and a shirt. You know I love my race swag but I was hurting so badly. I was so cold and soaking wet. For what?

I started to realize that what I was struggling with was accepting that I had to let things go. I was not accepting that this is the day I was given. I did everything I should have to have a great race, but that doesn't guarantee you one. I was mad that I struggled while everyone else seemed to push through. I knew they'd all say that everyone had a bad race, but I didn't want mine to be that day. 

While to most people this picture looks great, I can see all the areas I'm carrying pain. I'm pushed far back in my seat. My back is no longer flat. My arms are locked and further back on the bars (I started having trouble reaching all my gears). My shoulders are scrunched up and my chin is down. Even my heels are up more than usual.

I wanted that finish. I wanted to be proud of my race. I knew I should be proud anyway but I just wanted to finish. "Just get to the turnaround. That's halfway. Almost 30. Then you can get to 35. After that it's only 20. You can do 20 easy. But then I have to run. Just get there. Just get to transition. If you don't make it out then you can joke that you did an impromptu aquabike." As I fought with myself I came up to the turnaround. Every single person in front of me turned left to the transition. I was so far back I had to ask if I went right for loop 2. Off I went and the realization that I had a mostly uphill 18 miles hit me. I thought about giving up my chip and heading back to the finish but I just couldn't talk to anyone. There was just too much going on right there. I pedaled uphill and it was decided for me. My left glute cramped something fierce and my leg went numb down to my foot. I could still pedal but I couldn't feel it. "Now THIS is insanity" I said to myself. I coasted to a stop, unclipped and turned to the van. I was done. (Of course I'm getting teary eyed writing this now, which is a little surprising)

The guy came out, took my bike and checked that I wanted to stop. I explained I was okay but unable to ride anymore. He was kind and sympathetic, but luckily not very talkative. I normally can chat anyone's ear off but I was afraid I'd start crying if I did. Within a mile we came across the next cyclist. It was a personally challenged (PC) athlete in a recumbent bike. I have to admit I berated myself a bit about this. First, look how hard he is working, the challenges he's beating and HE didn't give up. Second, I was MINUTES from not being last, not riding in front of the sweep. If I had kept going would I have felt better? (NO!) Would I have relaxed and made it? (NO!!!) Not unless they were handing out magic at the next water stop.

It was about 10:30 at this point. Now I'm wet, cold and my back is spasming. The guy apologizes that it's going to be a long slow ride. I understand and am happy to not be out in the rain anymore. I picture Andrew back at the transition site, or inside the restaurant, having no idea how far my day has unravelled. It's weird to be that disconnected from him. I wished for my phone, which is back in my car. Usually they're completely banned from the race course. I never bother bringing it into transition at all. I was also hungry. I left my nutrition on the bike and didn't want to bother going into the back to get it. I didn't want to move. As we crept along we came across a man who had blown out the sidewall of his tire. There didn't seem like much could have been done to fix it, although the guy from the bike shop (thanks Papa Wheelies!) offered to try. The man was over it. He had been walking back along the course carrying his bike for a long time, waiting for the sweep van. I felt really bad for him. While there was probably something I could have done differently to have kept my back strong, he couldn't avoid a mechanical. We talked for a bit and then rode mostly in silence. After stopping to help the PC cyclist, I realized it was 12:45. Andrew must be really worried. He knew the cutoff was 12:30. He probably expected me a bit earlier. I didn't want to have to, but I asked to use the driver's phone. Andrew answered right away. My voice starts to break as I tell him I'm in the sweep van, that I pulled myself halfway and that my back hurt. I said I'd see him in about an hour and end the call.

We finally arrive back at the transition area and I see him waiting by the parking lot. I almost fall on my face getting out of the van and think, "and you thought you were going to ride another 28 miles? Ha!" I hand him my bike and ask him to hold onto it. I want to pack up my transition area and put everything in the car. I want to hide IN my car, but I don't. As we're standing there, one of my teammates runs by. I'm so happy to see her running. This race was a deferral from last year and while training she was in an accident and injured. I could imagine how hard her season was and how frustrating it would be to have two hard years. She sees me and I forget what she says but there is a tone of "oh no, why are you standing in the parking lot?" I tell her I'm okay and to go go go!

After I put my stuff in the car (and cry and post to facebook and get a talking to from Andrew) I go back to find her. I tell her what happens and get all teary eyed again. I know she understands my frustration. After a bit, we see another one of my teammates run across the finish line. I'm also happy to see her finish. I knew she was nervous about the run. As we walk towards her, I see her holding her finisher medal out. I'm confused and then she tells me, "this is YOUR finisher medal. I never would have made it through the run if it wasn't for you." I'm still confused and say, "but I didn't finish! I DNFed halfway through the bike." She insists it's mine and tells me again that the conversation we had in August was what pulled her through. Back then she told me she was unsure about the run and if she should switch to the aquabike (swim and bike, no run). I told her the story of my run at last years race. I said I walked the last 8 miles and if I could do that, she'd be certain to finish. I encouraged her to try. I had no idea I had made that much of an impact. I forgot about my own race. I hugged her and started to really cry. As I let go we turn to the teammate who had been waiting with me and see that her face is read and SHE'S crying! Laughing, the teammate that gave me the medal says, "now why are YOU crying?!" and, providing some much needed comic relief, she blurts out, "I'm just feeling really emotional!" A truer statement wasn't said that afternoon! A little while later, we saw another teammate finish her first half. I'm not sure there was a more beautiful smile at the finish line that day.

That was the point I started to feel at peace with the day. I love the bond our teammates have. I was so grateful I was offered a place to stay at one of the houses that weekend and that I accepted. I'm so glad I didn't avoid everyone. I realized that this season was about letting go. It was about having the faith to put yourself out there, give it your all and accept that the race may crush you. That the race may not even happen! It taught me how to fall down, sometimes get kicked while I'm down and then get up again. I learned to pick the lessons and bright spots from bad days and races and then close the door on yesterday. I learned that this DNF equaled Did Not Fail.

I don't really have the urge to go and do a "redemption" race. I'm not even sure I want to do a half ironman next year (forget a full Ironman!). My teammates have joked that maybe I should get that Olympic distance that I skipped in. Maybe. Probably. We'll see!